John H. Stevens: Review of Marlon James’ BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF

Language and plot in Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf are locked in  a mighty struggle of structure and meaning versus intensity and immediacy. From the beginning this struggle manifests in the stories Tracker, the main character, relates to his apparent captor The Inquisitor (Kamikwayo). Each story is “not the story;” but one of an endless profusion of narratives conjured to create the world. But these are not characterizations of “reality;” they generate their own brutal realism in their making of a world. They are lies that refute and reproduce truths. They are not historical facts; they are echoes of the experience of life that people try to form into a sense of the world.

James’ prose is viscera incarnate. It is intense sensation, brusque immediacy, a struggle in and of itself. Tracker’s stories are cascades of wild impressions and swift violence. It is kinetic, barely pausing to catch its breath; whether describing Midnight Street or his feelings for his old friend Leopard, Tracker never stops storytelling. The velocity of its pace and brutality makes it sometimes dizzying, sometimes perplexing, sometimes horrifying. The narrative is sharp and cynical, myth stripped down to an axe to the head.

The book is a series of stories told to save Tracker’s life that become their own purpose. Whether they will mollify Kamikwayo is irrelevant; Tracker is transforming his past into his creature, into a reflection of his own rage and sorrow. The stories are ways of transforming the tracks that have led him to this point. He is a tracker; he looks for traces of passage and follows them wherever they may go, then picks up a new trail and continues stalking his new target. The quarry of one track may have nothing to do with the next, but he must understand its path. And though no story can encompass the whole of his life, they are what can be salvaged or transformed from the past, from his legend of himself.

There has been copious discussion about whether this book is “fantasy,” as if such a label can encompass it. Whether it is or not, that is not the whole story. In this book, fantasy is neither escapism nor a wondrous land of imagination. Fantasy is not inspiration here; it is the prey. There is no romance, no chivalry, no whimsy. Deep emotion is in scant supply; the physicality and harshness of Tracker’s force a different sort of confrontation. But the book also feels light on purpose; other than the twin messages of “stories are not the whole story” and, perhaps “life is a vicious trail,” It’s difficult to see a point being made. Perhaps that is the point; stories carry no great messages or profound truths. They are moments of sense-making or summary that can never complete their job. Their “realness” is not the point; veracity has no bearing on their power or relevance. And yet they are important and necessary. Don’t believe that? Then, as Tracker says (implores?): “Tell me.”

John H. Stevens is a bookseller, writer, and reviewer. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

Categories: Book Reviews

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